After preaching1 on Jesus’ Prayer in Matt 6:9-13; 14-15, and especially focusing on how we are forgiven and forgiving as we prayer this prayer, I felt like this was only “Part One” of what would need to be a 78 part series – or maybe more!
One of the difficulties I face when I preach (and I doubt I’m alone on this one) is wrestling with what to do with all that is left unsaid after a message. Or, there are those moments when you think: “I wish I had said that more clearly – I wish I could have added more nuance.” (I know of one preacher – Bruxy Cavey – who sends out a podcast of additional thoughts he had, or what he would like to clarify, following the message he preached).
So, here are some of those additional thoughts (and there is so much more that could be said too!):
First, it has been very interesting how closely linked our sermon series – especially on the Lord’s Prayer – has been with our Youth Ministry and Children’s Ministry programs. There has been a clear emphasis on forgiveness without any planning on our part. I believe God has been orchestrating this focus and it fills me with joy to know that God is at work in such beautiful ways in our midst. I would also recommend two excellent blog posts on forgiveness, here and here, written by Kelly Madland.
Second, what Jesus, and later the apostles, teach about forgiveness – that we would forgive, even before someone has asked – that may seems next to impossible for us. But Paul says in Ephesians 4:32
…forgiving one another just as in Christ God in forgave you.
God forgave us before we asked for it: as we hear in Jesus’ words from the cross:
Forgive them Father, for they don’t know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).
Or, as Paul says in Romans 5:8;
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Now, we don’t experience reconciliation with God until we accept God’s forgiveness; but the forgiveness is already present on God’s part. So, can we forgive someone who has never asked us? Who has never acknowledged the hurt they caused? Yes. Must we? Yes. I can think of at least two significant reasons why.
- Jesus tells us to (Matt 6:12; 14-15; 18:22). I know. That doesn’t sound like a “reason”; but it is. If our Lord and Saviour instructs us to forgive, even if I can’t see all the reasons why, I can trust that he knows what my heart needs, even more than I do. That said, I think there are good reasons we can see for why Jesus instructs to forgive others: when we do, it demonstrates that we understand how deeply we have been forgiven by God (Matt 18:21-35) and it shows that we truly are on the journey of being made to reflect and resemble our Father. That is what God is up to: making us to be like him (Matt 5:48; cf. Eph 4:24).
- That leads to the second point: when we forgive others in our hearts, it sets us free. We might think it is good for the other person to be forgiven by us. That’s true – our interaction with that person will almost certainly be more healthy if we are not secretly burning with frustration or anger or bitterness toward them. But by following Jesus’ instruction and forgiving the other person (Mark 11:25) even before we confront them (Matt 18:15), we get to experience the freedom from carrying the baggage of hatred or contempt. I know several people who speak of forgiving someone even when the offender did not ask for it, or would not acknowledge that the incident happened. By forgiving the other person they experienced incredible freedom. This leads to another important issue.
Third, forgiving someone does not mean that we will instantly no longer feel angry about an offence. In fact, feeling anger itself is not necessarily wrong. Paul tells us: “In your anger do not sin” (Eph 4:26). Anger is an emotion that tells us “something is wrong here” – and that might be because there is a serious injustice and that makes us angry (and our anger is justified), or it might be that we are seeing things wrongly, or have had unfair expectations on others and are angry that they have not met them (and our anger is not justified). What matters is what we do with our anger (“do not sin”).
Forgiveness is not an emotion we feel (though there are certainly emotions that surround our forgiving, or unforgiving) but is a commitment to no longer hold a debt against another person. It will include having a heart that is willing to be reconciled to the person, so long as there are appropriate boundaries that lead to a healthy relationship (more on that in point four below). Forgiving someone might not stop our feelings of anger toward the other person in an instant, but it will clear the way for that feeling of anger to be appropriately worked through in an appropriate time frame. Holding on to the grudge will do the opposite: the anger can grow and be deadly to our inner lives.
Paul says: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26b), which is a warning not to nurse our feelings of anger, but to deal with them appropriately and quickly. As scholar Peter O’Brien states:
[Anger] is to be dealt with promptly, with reconciliation being effected as quickly as possible 2.
Fourth, and maybe most difficult: forgiveness opens the way for reconciliation between people. We are instructed to forgive as God has forgiven us (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13) – and to pray as those forgiven and forgiving (Matt 6:12). The way God forgives us includes his opening the way for us to come into fellowship with him. That does not mean God has no boundaries for how to appropriately be in relationship; he does. The same is true in our relationship with others. To forgive someone does not mean that if they have been abusive to us that they can continue that pattern of behavior. It means saying,
I am willing to be in relationship with you, so long as that is a positive, healthy relationship. Our interaction will have to be limited to ways that respect my dignity, as I respect yours.
There are some people who may never be willing to do their part.
If the person who hurt us is not willing to relate within appropriate boundaries, then we are not obligated to put ourselves in a situation that is harmful. Paul says in Romans 12:18:
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
What does Paul mean here? If there is the possibility to have a healthy relationship, we need to be open to it – our forgiving someone means we will be open to reconciliation. “So far as it depends on you,” reminds us that we have to play our part. Our part includes remaining open to have an appropriate relationship, but not open for being harmed.
Paul writes these words in the midst of discussing how we treat those who have hurt us, and his instructions are helpful to quote more fully:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what in right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Rom 12:17-19).
Instead, Paul says, we are to do good to those who harm us. He then concludes with these words:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21).
Indeed, our response to evil – even evil done toward us – is to entrust ourselves to the one who always judges justly (1 Peter 2:23), not seeking revenge, but forgiving since we have been forgive so much!
Some questions we might consider are these:
- Are there ways that I am refusing to “let someone go” – that I am holding their offence against them as a way to justify my feelings of anger toward them, or even working to use their offence against me as leverage to hurt them – emotionally or otherwise? Pray that God would strengthen you as you forgive – in the same way as you have been forgiven by God – wholly, completely, opening the way for renewed relationship.
- Are you in a relationship where appropriate boundaries are not being respected? You may need to talk to a qualified counsellor or pastor who can help you learn how to establish appropriate, healthy boundaries so that if you are able to continue in relationship, it is a positive one.
Now, May the God of grace richly supply you with all you need to do the hard work of forgiving, as you revel in the abundant forgiveness he granted you!